Looking for Stories and Music in the Pilgrimage Doc “Strangers on the Earth”


Certain kinds of experiences — dreams, psychedelic trips, and, turns out, spiritual journeys — are deeply meaningful to those having them but don’t necessarily make for a good story.

Pilgrimages have potential: Geoffrey Chaucer gave us 24 good yarns in his Canterbury Tales. But there isn’t even one in the otherwise gorgeous documentary Strangers on the Earth. The familiarity of Johann Sebastian Bach’s suites for unaccompanied cello, which Dane Johansen, the movie’s subject, played beautifully during the film’s tour of 36 churches along Spain’s Camino de Santiago, only accentuates Strangers’ sense of bland profundity.

The 600 or so miles of the “Way of Saint James” begins in the Pyrenees and culminates at Santiago de Compostela, the Galician city where its cathedral houses the remains of the apostle, or so believers have said since the ninth century. Johansen walked it carrying his cello on his back, giving small concerts along the way. But, aside from complaints about how the churches’ coldness makes playing difficult, he remains taciturn, leaving others to declaim at length.

Their tales prove stubbornly unilluminating. Wayfarers might once have sought out divine mercy, but today they mostly search for themselves — in mourning or in sickness, dealing with loss or midlife crisis. Some, clad in high-tech performance wear, are just on vacation. These days events like Coachella or hikes like the Pacific Crest Trail appeal to such souls, and even Europe’s many pilgrimages are packaged as tourist attractions. Surely, there’s meaning in them thar hills, but you’ll just have to take this film’s many words for it.

Strangers on the Earth
Directed by Tristan Cook
First Run Features
Opens May 4, Cinema Village


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